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Humours

The four humours and their corresponding qualities.

The four humours and their corresponding qualities.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Humoral theory, also known as humorism or the theory of the four humours, was a model for the workings of the human body. It was systemised in Ancient Greece, although its origins may go back further still. The theory was central to the teachings of Hippocrates and Galen and it became the dominant theory in Europe for many centuries. It remained a major influence on medical practice and teaching until well into the 1800s.

In this theory, humours existed as liquids within the body and were identified as blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These were in turn associated with the fundamental elements of air, water, earth and fire. It was further proposed that each of the humours was associated with a particular season of the year, during which too much of the corresponding humour could exist in the body - blood, for example, was associated with spring. A good balance between the four humours was essential to retain a healthy body and mind, as imbalance could result in disease. Such notions of internal balance have parallels in other medical traditions, notably AyurvedaUnani Tibb and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The treatments for disease within humoral theory were concerned with restoring balance. These could be relatively benign and focused on changes in dietary habits, exercise and herbal medicines. But other treatments could involve more aggressive attempts to re-establish balance. As well as having the body purged with laxatives and emetics, or the skin blistered with hot iron, individuals already weakened by disease might be subjected to bloodletting because practitioners mistakenly believed that their bodies contained an excess of blood.

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